Monday, 9 June 2008

LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR/Wages of Fear (1953)

I'm pretty sure that WAGES OF FEAR was the first foreign language film I ever saw. This must have been on it's general release in Britain (I believe it was the first sub-titled film to recieve a circuit release) so I would have been seven or eight. I think my mother was quite surprised to hear the actors speaking French and I recall she was very surprised by the scene where the drivers urinate at the side of the road. I don't think I was put off by the sub-titles and certainly the imagery has stayed with me over the years. I've seen the movie a couple of times over the years but in less than ideal circumstances. Seeing it again, the film has lost none of its power. The basic plot tells of four men who are hired to drive trucks full of nitroglycerin to a drilling camp to help put out an oil fire. The mountain roads are treacherous and the lorries unfit for the task. Around this the director, Henri-Georges Clouzot embroiders a rich tapestry. The drivers of the trucks are down and out no hope losers trapped in the purgatory of a one dog South American town, scratching out a living in anyway they can to pay for drinks and grubby rooms. You can almost smell these sweaty, unwashed characters as Clouzot carefully builds his picture of a hell on earth to explain why the men jump at the chance to drive the trucks - its not only for the money, it's a sort of redemption. There is a very interesting relationship between the two main characters, played by Yves Montand and Charles Vanel, which seems to have a homo-erotic element - certainly they seem to be flirting with each other (when they first meet Montand thinks Vanel has money) and there is a stand off in the cantina between Vanel and Montand's rejected room-mate. This is all very subtle and Montand is also shown as having a romantic interest in the cantina waitress (Vera Clouzot) although he seem unconcerned when she is obviously being used by her boss for sex. Later Clouzot dresses up on her afternoon off to please Montand who seems torn between going with her and his new friend. At this point Vanel throws a jealous tantrum. The driving scenes remain just as suspenseful as ever and certainly have not been eclipsed by either of the remakes (a cheap and cheerful B-movie by William Witney and a big budget disaster by William Friedkin). WAGES OF FEAR is one of the iconic French movies of the Fifties and one of the best suspense films ever. Notable in the supporting cast is the German actor Peter Van Eyck. Rating *****

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